The Activist Disease of Exhaustion …

In an age when there is a multitude of ministries in the church for laity, clergy and members of religious communities, and when there are hectic activity and endless demands, there is a great deal of burnout. Henri Nouwen is one of the best known spiritual teachers of contemporary ministers. In books like Reaching Out, Out of Solitude, and The Way of the Heart, he speaks of the need for regular times of solitude for effective ministry, and for the avoidance of the activist disease of exhaustion. “The goal of our life is not people. It is God. Only in God shall we find the rest we seek. It is therefore to solitude that we must return, not alone, but with all those whom we embrace through our ministry”.

Many women will be familiar with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s little book, Gift from the Sea. It is not written in an explicitly Christian context, but surely is in harmony with the Christian call to time spent in genuine solitude. By the time of its twentieth-anniversary edition in 1970 it had reached many and still continues to do so. Disagreeing with John Donne’s “No Man is an Island”, which we sang lustily for many years, she wrote from her island solitude that we are all islands – but islands in a common sea and for truth’s sake we must recognise this.

Is not the fundamental reason for our needing this solitude the fact that we are, each of us, inescapably solitaries? Is each of us not a unique being, a one-of-a-kind image of the infinite God? Does not each of us have the experience of an incommunicable depth, an awareness that, however much we might want to do so, in pain and in longing, we cannot wholly open our inmost being to another? The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of “the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other”. If I will not accept my own solitude, how can I accept what I cannot escape, the solitude of my death? No matter how many loved ones are with me, humanly speaking I die alone.

And yet we are social beings. If we would live our lives truly, we are stretched, extended, called to more life by responding to both aspects of our personal mystery. The temptation in recent times has been to all but submerge the solitary in the social. Perhaps we are on the way to honouring and nurturing the life-giving integration of both aspects of our human mystery. Then indeed we would have hoped of a deepened relation with God, with our own true selves, with others, and with creation.

 (Silence, Solitude, Simplicity – A Hermit’s Love Affair with a Noisy, Crowded and Complicated World by Sister Jenny Hall OSB, p. 89)


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